WHEN IT COMES to the novel that is larger than the historical space it straddles, the Russians are the original masters. Long before reviewers resorted to terms like state-of-the-nation novel, they had already exhausted the art of the state-of-the-soul novel in which the geography of the imperium is subordinated to the vastness of the inner-scape. You need not go beyond the shapeless classics—as shapeless as history and the passions that animate it—of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to fathom the moral conflicts of being Russia. When modern masters take the epic route, the results are not always as rewarding as those books that made them masters. Orhan’s Pamuk’s Nights of Plague (Faber) is big, densely populated, argumentative, and mixes history with imagination to tell a story that employs the crafts of a crime thriller and the detachment of a docudrama. Set in the fictional island of Minghera in the Ottoman Empire, in the darker dawn of the 20th century, it begins as a pandemic saga made suspenseful by the assassination of the Empire’s chief inspector of public health and sanitation and ends up as a parable of sub-nationalism and freedom, with a cast of the distant sultan, his envoys with a baggage of secrets, an enigmatic prince, a conniving pasha, a politically ambitious spy, and guardians of the sacred. It is, as the ‘fictional’ author says in the preface, written in 2017, “both a historical novel and a history written in the form of a novel.” Here we learn a lot—quite a lot—about the empire, the bubonic plague (including its Bombay chapter), lockdown, Islamic resistance to quarantine, and imperial governance. Like the good old Russian classics, the novel is elastic enough to contain a whole civilisation within its sprawl. If it loses a few heartbeats as it meanders through the labyrinths of history, that is a price the novelist is destined to pay for the sake of his ambition, which at times seems heavier than the novel itself.
At close to 1,000 pages, The Books of Jacob (Fitzcarraldo Editions) by Olga Tokarczuk—who, too, like Pamuk, won the Nobel when she was at the peak of her career as Eastern Europe’s most original novelist at work—is a bigger book. The size is matched by the profusion and propulsion of ideas. Spread across the Habsburg and Ottoman empires and seven ‘books’, it tells the story of Jacob Frank—wandering Jew, messiah, rebel, debunker, heretic and cult leader—through the imaginations and experiences of his followers. Frank, the mystic as a maverick, the charismatic as a trickster, is created by a magical realist accessorised by the philosophical and the arcane. Shifting between the comical and the tragic, the farcical and the fantastic, The Books, in the end, maps on its enchanted as well as enchanting pages the trauma of being a Jew, two centuries before the Holocaust. Tokarczuk’s alternative title to the novel is: “A fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages and three major religions, not counting the minor sects. Told by the dead, supplemented by the author, drawing from a range of books and aided by imagination, the which being the greatest natural gift of any person. That the wise might have it for a record, that my compatriots reflect, laypersons gain some understanding and melancholy souls obtain some slight enjoyment.” Fiction is a more rewarding place to wander after The Books of Jacob.
And I also enjoyed: Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj (Bloomsbury), by M J Akbar, for turning history into a storybook; Novelist as a Vocation (Knopf), by Haruki Murakami, for letting me into his work space; Abominations: Selected Essays from a Career of Courting Self-Destruction (Harper), by Lionel Shriver, for the subversive power of a contrarian columnist; 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows: A Memoir ( Crown ), by Ai Weiwei, for getting up close with the ancestry of dissent, from Mao’s China to the present; and The Story of Russia ( Bloomsbury), by Orlando Figes, for telling the backstory of Putin’s mythomania.